Murder mystery

Last weekend was ‘Agatha Christie Weekend’ here, the town where the much loved murder mystery writer spent most of her life and which is also the location of her grave. It seems only right to pay homage to the queen of crime by unravelling some of the word mysteries out there.

Firstly, mystery itself is quite mysterious. It originates from the Greek myein, which mean ‘to close, shut’ and comes from the same family as mute. It seems like a big step from this word to the current mystery, meaning ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’.

But the Greek term gave way to other Greek words: mystes, ‘one who has been initiated’, and mysterion, ‘secret rite or ceremony’. In a mysterion, a new priest would be initiated and become a mystes. He would have to keep his lips shut, that is, refrain from revealing the secrets of the initiation ceremony to others. From there, the word went through the usual journey of Latin and Old French before entering English in the 14th century. We also borrowed the word mystic from the same root.

Murder, on the other hand, is an open-and-shut case. It is of Germanic origin, with the original Old English term being morthor. It can be traced way back to an Indo-European root, whose descendents gave Sanskrit mará and Latin mors. Those who studied romance languages in school will recognise the cognates muerte in Spanish and mort in French. All of which mean ‘death’.

What’s more enigmatic is blue murder as in to cry blue murder, ‘to make an extravagant and noisy protest’. Why should murder have a colour? Does blue here refer to cold, as in murder in cold blood? Or is the crier screaming until they’re blue in the face?

There are a number of theories out there. One suggests that since another variant of the phrase is to cry bloody murder, blue here is a minced oath, a polite way of avoiding swearing by using another word that sounds quite similar.

Alternatively, in the 17th century, blue was used to describe someone who was terrified, so to cry blue murder would be to shout loudly with fear or make a terrified protest.

Another theory suggests that blue here refers to blue-blooded royals. Since to murder a royal would by an extremely grave – and difficult – crime, crying blue murder is to accuse someone of a very serious crime, leading to the idea of making a serious protest.

Then there’s the idea that blue can be used as an intensifier, as in blue blazes and blue funk. So the exclaimer is not only screaming about murder, but blue murder, hence the extravagance and noisiness of the protest.

But my favourite theory, whether it’s the right one or not, is that blue murder is a literal translation of the French minced oath: morbleu. When something terrible happened, the French could exclaim ‘mort Dieu!’, meaning ‘God’s death!’. (NB This might seem like a surprising form of blasphemy but it’s actually quite common – zounds, ‘sblood and gadzooks in English came from ‘God’s wounds’, ‘God’s blood’ and ‘God’s hooks’, ie nails on the cross, respectively.) The French avoided saying Dieu by using bleu as a minced oath, just as how sacré Dieu, ‘sacred God’, became sacré bleu. Thus mortbleu would be used as an exclamation of astonishment and English speakers thought it was a good enough phrase to adopt too.


A trip to the Oxford University Press museum a few weeks ago spurred on some thoughts about favourite words – surely a true lingthusiast has a good favourite word or two? The thing is there are just too many great words to choose from. When we’re pushed to choose, it does seem that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones that roll off the tongue the most, such as mellifluous or ubiquitous. But one great word suggestion that is not only fun to say but actually has an interesting word story too is quintessential.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything particularly remarkable about the origin of quintessential; looking at it, it looks quite French and you can see how it can break down into essential and then, presumably, essence. But what about the quint part?

Think quintet or quintuplets. Quintessence literally means the ‘fifth essence’. Going back (via Medieval French) to Latin, as quinta essentia, it was used in classical and medieval philosophy to refer to:

A fifth substance in addition to the four elements, thought to compose the heavenly bodies and to be latent in all things.


It was introduced to philosophical theory by Aristotle and entered Latin via a loan translation (ie the literal construction of ‘fifth element’ was borrowed) of the Greek pempte ousia. The basic idea was that there are five elements that made up all matter: fire, earth, air, water and quintessence. The first four we’re already familiar with but quintessence, also known as aether, was thought to make up the heavenly bodies and the rest of the universe. It was used to explain several natural phenomena, including gravity and the motion of light.

Over time, our scientific knowledge evolved and the theory of the five elements was dismissed but quintessential stuck on in there by hanging on to that last part of its meaning – ‘latent in all things’ – so that it eventually came to mean ‘the intrinsic and central constituent of something’ or ‘the most perfect or typical example’.


If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.



Sundays are break days in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge but today is no break for those brave enough to face the Paris Marathon. I’m not taking on the long-distance endurance running competition of just over 26 miles myself mind; I am neither fit nor foolish enough for that. But I am in Paris supporting my boyfriend.
Most of us already know the rough origin of marathon: it comes from a legend about a Greek town of the same name. According to the story, a Greek messenger was sent from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to declare that the Persians had been defeated. He ran. He arrived. He exclaimed nenikekamen, ‘we have won’, then, exhausted, he collapsed and died.


However, as often happens in history, the story has drifted over time. The legendary feat supposedly happened in 490 BC but it wasn’t recorded until the first century AD so it’s no wonder that the accounts vary. Some name the messenger Therspius, others Philippides and others Pheidippides. Some reference a longer journey, from Athens to Sparta, requesting help rather than announcing victory. The version we accept now is perhaps influenced by Robert Browning’s poem Pheidippides from 1879.
Regardless of historical reliability, it has been presumed that the journey the messenger would have taken from Marathon to Athens went south, around Mount Penteli and along the coast. The route is 25 miles long and is the basis of the modern marathon. The idea of the race was suggested for the first modern Olympics in 1896 as a way to recall the ancient glory of Greece and popularize the Games.
Ask any marathon runner how long a marathon is and they will probably reply with exactly 26 miles 385 yards, a very specific distance. This was not always so. The first marathon races were always somewhere around the 25 mile mark but would vary depending on the chosen route.
It was in 1908 at the Olympic Games in London that the distance of 26.2 miles was first set, to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium. This was so that the competition would finish in front of the royal family’s viewing box. This figure was officially set as the length of the marathon by the International Amateur Athletic Federation in May 1921.
With or without the extra 385 yards, it’s still an amazingly long distance to cover so good luck to everyone running the Paris Marathon today.



In a moment of genius or stupidity (open to debate), I have signed Word Stories up for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. This means there will be a new post every day except Sunday throughout April, one for every letter of the alphabet. For an etymoloblog, it should be easy enough to pick out a word for each letter and write about it. The hard part will be keeping motivated to write every day. So to bring about some good karma before the grand départ, it seems apt to look at the story of the alphabet, in honour of the A to Z Challenge.

Alphabet as a word comes, unsurprisingly, from the Greek alphabetos which is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. What is surprising is that alphabet only entered English in the 1570s, via Late Latin. Before that, we used the Old English words stæfræw, meaning ‘row of letters’, or stæfrof ‘array of letters’.


The word alpha precedes the Greek alphabetos as it comes from the Phoenician eleph which meant ‘ox’. One convincing theory is that the character A originated as a symbol of an ox head. Flip the A upside down and it looks similar enough.

Equally, beta also comes a Phoenician pictogram, this time from a house as viewed from above. In many Semitic languages, ‘house’ is beth or beyt which is what led to the Greek beta.

It’s hardly surprising that the Phoenicians should have given us the word alphabet, since they did invent it after all, sometime between 1200 and 1050 BC. The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified consonantal alphabet and the basis of our modern-day alphabet. We may call our alphabet the Latin alphabet and it may have evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet but actually we have the Phoenicians to thank for our ABCs.

The Phoenician alphabet quickly spread around the Med from around the 9th century BC. Part of its success was owed to the fact that one sound represented one symbol making the system far easier to lean than its contemporaries, such as Cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Also, the Phoenicians were big maritime merchants so their writing system covered a lot of ground.

The fact that the Greeks then used the first two letters to create the word alphabet isn’t particularly novel. The same thing happens in Arabic using alif and baa; in Hebrew using aleph and bayt; and in the Old Norse runic futhark which used the first six letters put together. It seems like a fairly logical linguistic occurrence, especially considering how we refer to learning our ABCs.

So on April 1st, Word Stories will be starting the A to Z Challenge by exploring the origins of an alpha word. Bring on the ox.